High Blood Pressure: Keeping the Silent Killer at Bay

High blood pressure is known as the “silent killer” because it rarely exhibits any outward symptoms and often isn’t even discovered until a person has a heart attack or stroke. If we can’t tell we have high blood pressure, how can we protect ourselves?

We spoke with Anagha Agarwal, M.D., an internist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and at Texas Health Internal Medicine, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, about high blood pressure and how to keep this potentially deadly condition at bay.

“We expect to see blood pressure rise as people age (especially those 50+), but what is worrisome is that more younger people are being diagnosed with high blood pressure, mainly because of lifestyle,” she explains. “With the younger population it is very tricky to diagnose because they think they’re young, hearty and healthy, so they don’t get it checked.

“We’re starting to see screening recommendations for kids as young as 11, but it’s especially important for anyone over 30. We recommend an annual physical, and are seeing more companies requiring regular screening for their employees.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 75 million American adults have high blood pressure (HBP), which equates to one in three. Of those, just over half (54 percent) have their blood pressure under control. This is crucial because uncontrolled HBP increases a person’s risk for heart disease and stroke, which are two of the leading causes of death in the United States.

Agarwal says the only way to really know you have high blood pressure is to get an annual screening, as people are very rarely symptomatic.

“Dizziness and headaches are the most common indicators of high blood pressure, but even those are rare,” she explains. “One high reading doesn’t mean you have high blood pressure because some people have ‘white coat syndrome’ or may have been rushing around before their appointment. We can, however, diagnose high blood pressure with at least three high readings taken on three different ‘normal’ days.

“Home meters can be inconsistent, so I recommend people check their blood pressure on the machines at the grocery store or pharmacy when they’re out running errands. You can also always come to the clinic and have it checked.”

In a CDC report from 2013, high blood pressure was listed as a primary or contributing cause for more than 360,000 deaths that year. This means HBP is a significant factor in almost 1,000 deaths of American adults per day.

High blood pressure also increases risk for the following health conditions:

  • First heart attack – Around 70 percent of people who experience their first heart attack have HBP.
  • Stroke – Around 80 percent of people of people who experience their first stroke have HBP.
  • Chronic heart failure – About 70 percent of people with chronic heart failure have HBP.

Additionally, obesity and kidney disease is a significant risk factor for HBP.

The number of Texans with high blood pressure is almost identical to the national average, around 32 percent. Texan men experience HBP at a rate of 33.8 percent, while women fare just a bit better at 31.2 percent.

You probably don’t need any more convincing that high blood pressure is a problem. What can you do to keep your blood pressure low?

Agarwal provides the following dietary tips for managing blood pressure:

  • Follow the DASH diet and limit salt intake.
  • Avoid canned foods because they are high in salt…the salt acts as a preservative. (Fresh or frozen food is a better alternative.)
  • Watch for foods high in salt like pickles and pork.
  • It’s okay to use limited salt in cooking but avoid adding salt at the table.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Eliminate soda and limit coffee, as too much can make blood pressure go up.
  • Limit alcohol intake to one drink per day.

In addition to dietary changes, Agarwal recommends staying active and reducing stress.

“People should get 20-30 minutes of exercise at least three times per week to start if they haven’t previously been active,” she says. “You don’t have to begin with a rigorous exercise program right away, but the goal is to get yourself active. It’s also important to reduce stress, which is a major reason for increasing rates of HBP.

“We can’t usually change our work, but most of us are sedentary in the workplace so we should make a conscious effort to move more. Try to stand up and walk around at least every hour. Healthy body and healthy mind are important to prevent and treat HBP. Adopting a healthy diet and routine exercises help us keep our bodies healthy. For the mind — yoga, meditation and learning to cope with stress are important.”

Agarwal notes that not all HBP are primary or essential i.e. due to age/lifestyle. Sometimes it can be due to other underlying medical conditions, called Secondary Hypertension, which can be diagnosed by your doctor. This is often diagnosed in childhood or in the teen years and isn’t common. Secondary hypertension due to microvascular diseases does increasing damage over the years, so management is important.

With the holidays upon us, Agarwal reminds people to be cautious about their health.

“We traditionally see many hospitalizations during the holiday season,” she recalls. “People tend to eat too much and it’s often unhealthy food. They also consume more alcohol. Just don’t overdo it!”

Has it been a while since you’ve had your annual physical and checked your blood pressure? Finding a physician who can partner with you for your health is essential. We can help find a physician that’s appropriate and convenient for you. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (847-9355) or visit TexasHealth.org/Provider today.

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